About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Podcast Teasers: Philosophical counseling & SETI

by Massimo Pigliucci

No, we are not doing an episode on the connection between philosophical counseling and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, though that would certainly make for an amusing installment of the Rationally Speaking podcast! More sensibly, we are about to tape two episodes, one per topic.

On the first count, we will have my CUNY colleague Lou Marinoff, a philosopher at City College and author of the best-selling “Plato, Not Prozac!: Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems.” Lou is also a founder of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, so who better than him to chat about this recent trend to use philosophy as a type of talk therapy? Now, despite the provocative title of Lou’s book, the idea is actually not to replace psychiatric medications with chats about the ancient Greeks. Rather, as he puts it in the introduction to the volume, you should take your medications if you really need them, but once your brain is back to a normal functionality you will likely still be faced with the same existential problems that plague most human beings. And that’s where philosophy might help.

The second episode is going to be completely different, as Julia and I will take on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and ask whether it is solid science, pseudoscience, or something else (spoiler alert! I’ll argue that it’s something else...). I have always been a fan of SETI since I was a kid, and remain so. But it does make sense to ask what the theoretical foundations and empirical evidence are that justify a multi-decade research program, and what we think its chances are of succeeding.

So, as usual, please post your comments and questions, and we will do our best to address them while comfortably sitting in our Greenwich Village studio...


  1. You may argue against researchers trying to prove that vaccines cause serious illnesses, diabetes or something by pointing out that they spend public money on their projects without justification by evidence or any hint, but driven by a fundamental human fear or disgust.
    While the longing for extraterrestrial lifeforms and human-like but alien species might be called a fundamental human feeling, too, and while there is no more evidence for alien species than for those side-effects of vaccine, aren't research and result connected in a different way?
    The effects of vaccines don't change whether we know about them or not, but the discovery of an alien species, becomes much more likely when both civilizations run SETI-like programs.
    Thus the search for intelligence is a way of staying open-minded and while it doesn't increase the probability of the existance of aliens it enables possible civilizations to contact us. Of course there is a border between a cheaper role of detecting and interpreting possible signals and a more expensive active search.

    Explaining why/if there is a difference between spending money without evidence on unlikely threats and spending money without evidence on unlikely chances that might become more likely by spending money on them just got a little hard...
    Im not sure if I was able to argue conclusively or write what I thought in an understandable way - maybe you can try ;)

    Greetings, CBorys

  2. Philosophical therpay seems to attract people who may have fundamental questions about life's biggest questions but not people who really needs therpay. I am sure it is fascinating to talk with such a philosopher about the meaning of life and death, but can he or she help you when your girlfriend dumped you and you are depressed or when you suffer from PTSD? The real comparison should be made not to psychiatric medications but to other forms of talk therpay, maninly the effective CBT. How does it compare to that? From what I saw, there is no real evidence that it is as helpful. Moreover, what the theory that is behind this treatment in terms on how it is suppose to affect the individial? Understanding things in a rational way is one thing, but actually changing the way they feel is a different isuue.

  3. In the concluding chapter ('Living with Scientism: Ethics, Politics, the Humanities, and Prozac as Needed') of his new, excellent, and fun ATHEIST'S GUIDE TO REALITY: LIVING LIFE WITHOUT ILLUSIONS, Alex Rosenberg proposes what may be a quite different view of therapy and psycho-pharmacology from that of Marinoff.


  4. Massimo,

    About the second topic, dealing with chances in such an unknown is quite risky. It can bias your search in a dramatic way. Let alone, which in my opinion could be the first questions. Do we really want to find another galactic civilization and why? Are we ready? Could we comunicate with them? What if they want to invade us?

  5. "Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems." So I can't help but wonder which eternal wisdom this fellow is speaking of since philosophy is not one country but is instead comprised of balkanized territories each constantly doing battle for their intellectual turf and also doing their best to prove that fellow right who said that intelligence had evolved to enable us to argue.

    I think the real SETI question is "Would we find evidence of the aliens if we didn't look?" Certainly it is a gamble, but since as far as I know no one is making you pay for it I don't see why you have such a problem with it in comparison to a lot of overtly destructive things that human beings do for less good reason - like manufacture more one-use material to add to the Pacific Garbage Patch. Has Seth Shostak made some outrageous scientific claim that offended your sensibilities? Do you think we should not look for them at all?

  6. You can think of SETI as a test of our understanding of the universe. The better we understand all the factors of the Drake equation, the better we can predict how many alien civilizations exist and where.


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